Bacon's Essays: Of Great Place

Bacon’s essay about Great Place derives from his lifetime of experience as a courtier. He visited Elizabeth’s court with his father, the Lord Keeper, in his youth and attended upon her in his own right from at least age 18 when he returned from France. He spent 24 years in her service and then 22 more serving King James. This essay was probably written in the 1590’s, a time of great contention among Elizabeth’s principal courtiers: Sir Walter Ralegh, Sir Robert Cecil, and the earl of Essex. Bacon knew quite a bit about ambition and high position; the result is a highly quotable essay.

Pain and indignity

“The rising unto place is laborious; and by pains, men come to greater pains; and it is sometimes base; and by indignities, men come to dignities.”

Many people (people who only read headlines) consider Francis Bacon to have been a cynical man. He never was. He was a realist with exceptionally clear vision, especially when looking at humans engaged in politics, and understood that if you want to reach a position high enough to make a difference, you will most likely have to do a few things of which you will not be proud. Conversely, if you refuse to get your hands dirty, you won’t be able to do much.

You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. Compromise is the art of maturity. There must be more proverbs saying more or less the same thing. “By indignities, men come to dignities” is one of Bacon’s better-known quotes.

Strangers to themselves

Bacon’s first observation is that great men are strangers to themselves, because they are consumed by their great affairs. “Men in great place are thrice servants: servants of the sovereign or state; servants of fame; and servants of business. So as they have no freedom; neither in their persons, nor in their actions, nor in their times. It is a strange desire, to seek power and to lose liberty: or to seek power over others, and to lose power over a man’s self.”

“Certainly great persons had need to borrow other men’s opinions, to think themselves happy; for if they judge by their own feeling, they cannot find it; but if they think with themselves, what other men think of them, and that other men would fain be, as they are, then they are happy, as it were, by report;”

God’s theatre

God’s theater is the world in which men act. God’s rest is heaven. The single most important principle that guided Bacon’s life and work was that men ought to labor for the good of mankind; especially men of talent and good birth, and most especially men of science. In order to do good, you must have some authority — the means to achieve your lofty aims.

“But power to do good, is the true and lawful end of aspiring. For good thoughts (though God accept them) yet, towards men, are little better than good dreams, except they be put in act; and that cannot be, without power and place, as the vantage, and commanding ground.”

A globe of precepts

Wise men seek worthy models to follow in both aiming for great places and in choosing how to wield the power thus won. A globe of precepts is thus a large collection of such rules and role models.  

Now follows a stream of good advice, reminding me that Bacon was an exemplary Lord Chancellor. He was regarded even by his enemies as an exceptionally good manager of that busy court. I’ll see if I can give you the PowerPoint version of these fine precepts:

  • Examine thyself strictly to evaluate your actions.
  • Consider negative examples as well as positive, to learn what to avoid.
  • Look to the past for examples of the best possible actions and to the present for examples of the most suitable.
  • Be consistent, so people will know what to expect, but not rigid.
  • Preserve the dignity of your office, not by challenging others, but simply by occupying the place properly.
  • Preserve the dignity of lesser offices by letting those officers do their jobs. Don’t micro-manage them.
  • Get help and seek advice when you need it, and don’t refuse information that you didn’t seek. Add it to the mix.

The vices of authority

There are four: delays, corruption, roughness, and facility. Watch out for them and work to combat them.

“For delays: give easy access; keep times appointed; go through with that which is in hand, and interlace not business, but of necessity.” That is still very good advice!

For corruption, prosecute the bribers as well as the bribees. “And avoid not only the fault, but the suspicion.”

“For roughness: it is a needless cause of discontent: severity breedeth fear, but roughness breedeth hate. Even reproofs from authority, ought to be grave, and not taunting.” Have you ever had a boss who ruled through snarkiness?  How much did you love that job?

“As for facility: it is worse than bribery. For bribes come but now and then; but if importunity, or idle respects, lead a man, he shall never be without.” I think he means being too easily persuaded. Importunity means pleading; you can’t be nice to everyone just because they happen to be standing in front of you saying, “Pleeeaasse.”

The winding stair

Winding stairs in the Vatican museum

Power will reveal the truth about you. You’d better make sure you like what it shows.

“All rising to great place is by a winding stair…” Bacon’s life took more turns than most and his reputation continues to revolve as the centuries roll past.

This is also wisdom from experience: “if there be factions, it is good to side a man’s self, whilst he is in the rising, and to balance himself when he is placed.” You need a party to get elected, but once in the top seat, you need to represent the whole society.

“Use the memory of thy predecessor, fairly and tenderly; for if thou dost not, it is a debt will sure be paid when thou art gone.” Ain’t that the truth!

Latin quotes

Lots of Latin in this one. Translations courtesy of Bartleby’s.

Cum non sis qui fueris, non esse cur velis vivere [When a man feels that he is no longer what he was, he has no reason to live longer.]

Illi mors gravis incubat, qui notus nimis omnibus, ignotus moritur sibi [It is a sad fate for a man to die too well known to everybody else, and still unknown to himself.] (Bacon was an advocate of sound self-knowledge. Without it, you can’t do good science, because you can’t defend your observations from your own biases.)

Et conversus Deus, ut aspiceret opera quæ fecerunt manus suæ, vidit quod omnia essent bona nimis [And God turned to look upon the works which his hands had made, and saw that all were very good]

Omnium consensu capax imperii, nisi imperasset [A man whom every body would have thought fit for empire if he had not been emperor]

Solus imperantium, Vespasianus mutatus in melius [Vespasanus was the only emperor whom the possession of power changed for the better]

 

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3 Comments on "Bacon’s Essays: Of Great Place"

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Vanya
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This is really one of the best analysis of ‘Of Great Places’ on the internet. Thanks for sharing!

Anna Castle
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Thanks, Linda! These essays have their flashes of continuing relevance. And I also like to read blogs with my breakfast. It’s the modern substitute for a stack of newsprint, I guess.

Linda Chudej
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A good read with my coffee this morning. Thanks for sharing it with us.

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